Detroit Red Wings general manager Steve Yzerman just concluded a pretty successful weekend. The team added many forward prospects in the draft, highlighted by top pick Marco Kasper, addressing the team’s biggest deficiency in their prospect pool. On top of that, Yzerman was also able to address the team’s need for a new goaltender by bringing in Ville Husso in a trade with the St. Louis Blues. Now with the free agent market opening up in just two days, the focus now shifts to which players the GM could sign to further elevate the quality of Detroit’s roster.
While there are multiple areas Yzerman will have to address in this year’s free agent market, perhaps no area is in as much need of attention as their blue line is. The Red Wings have plenty of defensive prospects coming up the pipeline (2021 top pick Simon Edvinsson is likely penciled-in as one of the team’s top-six defenders next season) but, as a whole, their blue line lacks two things: left-handed players, and veteran experience. With the (likely) departure of veterans Marc Staal and Danny DeKeyser, the Red Wings need to fill those holes while also moving the team forward.
After giving up the second-most goals in the NHL last season, there really isn’t anywhere else to go but up for the Red Wings’ defense. Signing one or two of the guys listed here will go a long way towards ensuring that Detroit does make the necessary progress on defense.
33 Years Old; 2021-22 Team: Carolina Hurricanes; 2021-22 Stats: 2 Goals, 19 Points, 75 Games Played
Ian Cole has had about as successful a career as you can hope for in the NHL. He was drafted in the first round of the 2007 draft by the Blues before finding his way to the Pittsburgh Penguins, where he was a part of that franchise’s back-to-back Stanley Cup championships in 2016 and 2017. Since then, he’s played for four teams: the Columbus Blue Jackets, Colorado Avalanche, Minnesota Wild, and the Carolina Hurricanes. Safe to say the Ann Arbor native is well-traveled at this point in his career.
Throughout his career, Cole has always been a defense-first type of defenseman. He has never recorded more than 26 points in a season, and he makes his living by taking care of matters in his own zone and leaving the offense to his forwards. Furthermore, he’s always slotted into a middle or bottom pairing role, having never averaged more than 19:49 in ice time over his 12 seasons in the league. He understands his role, and he understands what it takes to win in the NHL.
Cole’s last contract saw him get paid $2.9 million on a one-year deal signed with the Hurricanes. Given his ascending age and declining role in the NHL, his asking price will almost surely be right around the $2-2.5 million range, likely on a one or two-year deal. He won’t steal minutes from players like Edvinsson, but he would provide insulation for Detroit’s youngest defensemen, and could be something of a role model for them as they learn their way around the NHL. It also wouldn’t hurt to add a player with two Stanley Cup rings into the locker room.
36 Years Old; 2021-22 Team: Los Angeles Kings; 2021-22 Stats: 3 Goals, 19 Points, 41 Games Played
There is an alternate universe out there where Alex Edler has already been a Red Wing. Detroit, under GM Ken Holland, was interested in him during the 2004 draft, and they were later interested in acquiring him during the 2013 offseason. In this universe, Edler was drafted by the Vancouver Canucks, where he became a household name over 15 seasons. Last season, he departed Vancouver and joined the up and coming Los Angeles Kings, where he provided veteran mentorship for a team that surprised many by punching their ticket to the playoffs.
Edler is one of the most experienced defensemen set to be available on the free agent market, and with that comes a list of pros and cons. He only played in half of the Kings’ games last season due to an injury sustained in December of last year. He did manage to make it back for the playoffs, where he posted two points and a plus/minus rating of plus-4 against the Edmonton Oilers in their first round matchup. He made $3.5 million on the one-year deal he signed with the Kings, so if his asking price is still in that range, the Red Wings would likely be better suited to pursue a younger, cheaper option.
But if the Red Wings can get Edler on a one-year deal at a reasonable cap-hit, he would provide veteran leadership on the blue line, similar to what Staal provided over the last two seasons. He could even step into a “dad” role for the Red Wings’ young, Swedish players – especially Edvinsson. Edler averaged 18:28 of ice-time last season, and he would be expected to carry a similar workload next season if signed by the Red Wings.
28 Years Old; 2021-22 Team: Montreal Canadiens/Edmonton Oilers; 2021-22 Stats: 5 Goals, 21 Points, 74 Games Played
The prior two defensemen listed here have been to at least one Stanley Cup Final, and Brett Kulak continues that trend, having been to the 2021 Stanley Cup Final with the Montreal Canadiens. On that team, he played a no-nonsense, defense-first game while shouldering bottom pairing minutes. This year, after Montreal traded him to the Edmonton Oilers, he played in a similar role for most of their run to the Western Conference Final. When the Oilers’ top defenseman, Darnell Nurse, saw his game take a hit after sustaining an injury, Kulak was who Edmonton head coach Jay Woodcroft turned to with the responsibility of taking on some of Nurse’s minutes.
Kulak is not going to be the biggest splash of free agency, and there’s probably a good number of hockey fans out there who still don’t know who this guy is. He’s a quiet and calm player that goes out and takes care of business, and can play a key role on his team’s penalty kill. He is the youngest player listed here, and he may very well be the cheapest option as well, considering his last deal saw him make $1.85 million a season. If the Red Wings could get him on a two-year deal that pays around $2-2.5 million a season, he would add competency to Detroit’s blue line without carrying the same level of risk that some of the older options available come with.
If the Red Wings want to make a splash in free agency and sign a big-name defender, this isn’t the year to do it – there simply aren’t enough good options at that caliber. But if their goal is simply to shore up their defensive play and add a capable piece or two on the blue line while their prospects marinate elsewhere, there will be plenty of options available – and that doesn’t even cover the trade options that are likely out there.
One thing’s for sure: the Red Wings won’t have to break the bank in order to improve their blue line for next season. That is and will continue to be very important for a team that continues to slowly build while maintaining maximum financial flexibility.
What do you think? Which defensemen would you like to see the Red Wings target in free agency?
I am a Western Michigan University alum whose passion for hockey knows no limits. Dr. Pepper enthusiast. Catch me and my fellow Red Wings writers’ YouTube show “The Hockey Writers Grind Line” which drops every Saturday.